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The biggest schooner didn't come far

By David Collins

Publication: The Day

Published September 14. 2013 4:00AM   Updated September 15. 2013 5:28PM

The schooner Mystic has good odds today in the schooner race off New London, by virtue of its long waterline.

The boats won't be handicapped, and therefore, if there is enough wind, a general rule is the bigger the boat, the better the odds.

The Mystic, at 171 feet, will be the biggest boat in the race, says her captain, Geoffrey Jones, and will have a good chance at winning if it doesn't get outmaneuvered by smaller, sleeker boats in light air.

On Thursday, I heard some other schooner crews scoffing at the idea of the big Mystic winning.

On Mystic Seaport's schooner Brilliant, more classic yacht than heavy passenger ship, they thought they might be able to win the race handily and then go on to finish a charter scheduled for today.

A young crew member on the Virginia, almost as big as the Mystic, just smiled and shook his head when I suggested the Mystic was considering a win, if there is enough heavy wind. They seem very confident on the beautiful Virginia.

On my Thursday tour of the Mystic at Mystic Seaport, Jones explained that his boat had traveled about the shortest distance for the first leg of the schooner festival.

The Mystic is homeported at a Holmes Street dock just a short dinghy row away from the Seaport. It arrived in Mystic after being launched in 2007, and its three big masts have become a familiar part of the Mystic skyline.

Its original owners ran into financial trouble soon after bringing it to town, though, and lost it in a foreclosure.

The Mystic didn't function much at all for three years, but this year it was put back into service by the nonprofit Mystic Nautical Heritage Society, which has an agreement with the lien holders to keep it in service.

A long-term owner or operator is being sought.

In our tour, Jones talked a bit about the difficulty of bringing the big ship into the inner basin in Mystic, beyond both the railroad and highway bridges. It's about the biggest ship that can make it through.

You have to coordinate the timing of the bridge openings very carefully, given that you don't want to get caught in the narrow and short channel between the two.

"Five minutes can seem like an eternity," Jones said of the experience of being trapped in the small space and unable to maneuver if one of the bridges is not open.

The other issue is the width of the opening of the highway bridge, which only leaves about 10 feet on each side for the Mystic. Even trickier is the fact that the bridge is at an angle to the channel, so you are turning the ship at the same time you are passing through the narrow opening.

I was intrigued enough in hearing about the challenge that I took Jones up on an offer to sail Friday with them to New London.

Indeed, the ship handling that Jones used to back the big Mystic out of its tight berth at the Seaport, into but not across the narrow channel, pivoting with the anchor to go the opposite direction, was masterful.

And then we were on toward the highway bridge, which began its opening just as the Mystic approached. Jones gave a shout of thank you to each of the bridge tenders as we passed safely through. In fact, shouting - orders like make this, and sweat that - was the order of the day for the crew on the Mystic, who put up full sail, including the square sails high on the forward mast, for a brisk ride down Fishers Island Sound to New London.

Mystic is not only the biggest ship in the festival, but I would bet it's the only one with two mascots.

Aboard for the trip Friday was Daisy, an old salt, a white boxer with one brown eye patch. But also making a first passage was Remington, a 7-week-old Great Dane, who was doing a pretty good job getting his sea legs, skittering across the teak decks.

I'm not sure you can find it in many nautical handbooks, but I believe there is an old lore than 7-week-old puppies bring good luck in a schooner race.

My money is on Remington bringing the Mystic first across the line today.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

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